It’s like the contrarian he is that Luke Haines‘ live run-through of 1996 fan favourite concept album Baader Meinhof should be scheduled for the release week of his latest work NY In The ’70s – another concept album entirely.
The evening’s entertainment, played out with two backing musicians on drums and guitar/keys in Bush Hall’s just-right confines, to an audience that looks devoted rather than freshly found, divides into three unequal parts. To begin with, the assembled are offered a selection of his new work, with tracks referencing Suicide‘s Alan Vega, Jim Carroll and Lou Reed. With a theme harking back to bygone times and rock’n’roll heroes, it acts as something like a support act to the Baader Meinhof material.
And it’s not an insult to say that it doesn’t quite measure up, for Haines was surely at the top of his game when he created the spikey, angry, angular album that references not just the German terrorist group but the PLO too, for good measure. Essentially his debut solo album, released in amongst his work with/as The Auteurs, Baader Meinhof was the first indication that Haines would assume multiple identities through a career that was likely to long outlast his mid-’90s indie rock contemporaries.
Back to the present, and these days Haines is less a one man terrorist organisation than a waylaid test match cricket fan lookalike replete with straw hat and bushy sideburns. His penchant for repeating song titles in songs where extrapolated lyricism would be welcome has surely reached its zenith with the new track Lou Reed, Lou Reed. Like the late Velvet Underground lynchpin’s name in its title, the song is offered twice, once early on in the set and again for an unexpected second full-band encore. Its lyrics are, essentially, the same as the title. As with a lot of what Haines does, there’s the sense that he’s playing for laughs – pulling some collective leg to see if bells ring, perhaps – though doing so with serious intent. If his career to date could be summed up with a single question, it would surely be: How much can I get away with?
But there are encouraging signs that he’s prepared to try new routes in his songwriting, with his voice being asked to do far more on this album than his customary dark-alley-mugger sneer. The arrangements are less obvious too.
There’s Gonna Be An Accident and the title track are well received, with several audience members mouthing the words. The performance lacks the orchestral drama of the recording – as it inevitably would, given there are just three people on the stage – but focuses instead on the precise songwriting.
The final component of the evening is the first encore, with Haines swapping band and electric guitar for a seat and an acoustic, and a rattle-through of material from some of his other concept albums, including the one about the wrestlers and Rock And Roll Animals. A couple of Auteurs tracks muscle in on the solo career pickings, with Junk Shop Clothes working well in the mix. Together they convincingly answer the question in emphatic fashion.
There’s the sense that this size of room fits Haines. He needs an audience, but it needn’t be big; he prefers to see the whites of eyes. And it’s likely he’ll continue to carry it with him whatever conceptual high jinks his vivid imagination flies off with next. Always unique enough to be of interest year in year out, yet familiar enough to carry fans with him, Haines has, in his own particular style, found a winning formula that works even in uncertain times.